Category Archives: travel

Hawaii 2010 trip recap: Oahu

This past June, Alli and I traveled to Hawaii.  We had always wanted to go, and this was a double celebration: both our five-year anniversary and Alli’s graduation from the Harvard Kennedy School.

I’m not going to recap every single event or activity here.  That would take too long and be too boring, even for me 😉  But I want to capture the highlights for future reference and for several interested people.

We had about 10 days in Hawaii, and we split the time roughly equally between Oahu and Maui, two great but very different islands.  Before the trip we asked a lot of friends for advice, and several said Oahu was too busy and loud, but we loved it.  Neither Alli nor myself can relax for too long 😉

We flew with US Airways via Phoenix, which splits the flight about in half.  That worked out very well.  No flight troubles at all.  On one leg we were even upgraded to Business Class which was nice, but not amazing.

We started in Oahu.  We rented a car, which was also necessary on Maui, as public transportation is slim or none.  We checked in to our hotel, the Halekulani.  The hotel was great the whole way: excellent service, great location, great food, great room.  Really nothing to complain about, which is good, because it was very expensive.  We had breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants, House without a Key, most mornings, and it was awesome.

Also while in Oahu, we hiked up Diamond Head, which was awesome and highly-recommended.  We drove to the North Shore, swam a bit, and saw the waves at Pipeline, Banzai, and Waimea, all legendary places I’d always wanted to check out.

Hawaii honeymoon 2010

Pearl Harbor both emotional and really interesting.  I really liked the USS Bowfin submarine tour, seeing the equipment setup and cabin sizes, etc.  Although we’re not big history buffs, Pearl Harbor is such a famous place with so many stories that it was fascinating to see the real thing.

Dinner at Alan Wong‘s was OK, but not amazing (again).  The food was fresh and well-prepared, but I found it lacking inspiration.  Nothing that made you go “wow!” or want to come back.  At least not among the dishes we had.  Both the service and (especially) the wine list were just OK — nothing to write home about.

We also did some walking around Honolulu (not bad), some shopping (way over-priced, except beach wear which was great), and Alli took surfing lessons at Waikiki (amazing).

Next up: Maui and Kauai.

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Restaurant review: Eleven Madison Park (NYC)

Last weekend Alli and I traveled to New York City for a long holiday weekend. It was also Valentine’s Day, and independently we both love good food, so what better excuse to eat at a fun new (for us) restaurant?

I wanted to try a high-end place, but one we had not been to in the past. We had already been to most of the famous landmarks, some together, some separately. Places like Daniel, Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, etc are excellent, but already done. And you know how I feel about Per Se from a past post.
So I did some research, talked to some friends (foodie and otherwise), and noted that Eleven Madison Park had the top NY Times rating, which the above places share, but not a lot of other restaurants in the city. Less than a handful, in fact. So off we go…
The place is beautiful. Super-high cathedral ceilings, huge windows, modern decor. Flowers very similar in style those famous ones in the lobby of the Hotel George V where we stayed in Paris last June.
Our reservations were for 10pm, we showed up on time, and we were welcomed right away by a gracious hostess. Another helper took our coats, and directed us to the bar. We ordered a drink, and our table was ready for dinner right about when we got the drink, a few minutes later.
Dinner was prix fixe for Valentine’s Day, and expensive. Not as expensive as Per Se, but more than the most expensive places in Boston for sure. I’ll list it out, since I have the menu in front of me, and I want to have a reference.
It reads a little bit like a foodie’s buzzword bingo, so I apologize 😉 But it was delicious, all of it. The foie gras and lobster stood out. The wine pairings, which were good, are in parenthesis.
Sterling Royal Caviar in a sphere of smoked sturgeon cream.
Porcini mushroom veloute with Parmigiano-Reggiano (Billecart-Simon, Brut Reserve, Campagne, France).
Foie Gras terrine with golden pineapple, pickled pearl onions, and rum-raisin brioche (Yves Cuilerron, Rousilliere, Rhone Valley, France 2007.)
Bouillabaisse: Dover sole with Bouchot mussels, bay scallops, Hawaiian blue prawns, and chorizo (Bruna, Le Russeghine, Riviera di Ponente, Liguria, Italiy, 2007.)
Nova Scotia lobster, slow cooked with winter citrus, pickled daikon radish, and avocado oil (Huet, Le Mont Semi-Sec, Vouvray, Loire Valley, France 2005.)
Organic chicken, roasted with leeks, celery root, and black truffles (Belle Pente, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon 2007.)
“Pink roses:” strawberries, white chocolate, and kaffir lime (Giacomo Bologna, Brachetto d’Acqui, Piedmont, Italy 2007.)
Mignardises.
The pacing was excellent. Not rushed, not too slow.
The service was very good. Patient, friendly, smiling, knowledgeable.
The wine pairings were good, but not amazing. The restaurant has an astonishing wine list, 50+ pages in a nice leather-bound volume, with plenty of rarities. I think they were for interest and curiosity with the dinner pairings, and one of them (the Roussiliere) absolutely shined. The others were just OK: good wines, decent pairings, but a missed opportunity to inspire.
All, in all, Eleven Madison Park was a beautiful place to have an excellent meal. I don’t regret going there, but I’m not sure I’d be in a rush to go again. Not when Per Se is in town 😉

Hotel review: The Muse Hotel, NYC

Last weekend, on our trip to New York City, we stated at the Muse Hotel. The Muse is a small boutique hotel in the Times Square area. It combines nice style, a kick-ass location, and reasonable prices for big rooms, which is a very rare combination for the city.

Alli and I both like staying at boutique hotels. We like the different styles, the non-bland feeling, and the often more personal service you get. Sometimes the service or experience is not as consistent, but the highs tend to be higher than what you get elsewhere. It’s a sort of high-beta hotel experiment, and I’m a fan of those.
The Muse definitely delivered on its promise. The location is hard to beat, literally. You’re right in Times Square, steps away from various subway stations and major attractions. It’s on a small cross street (West 46th) which has tons of small restaurants, primarily Brazilian. But overall the street and the hotel are quiet, like a mini-oasis in the middle of the city.
The room was excellent. We stayed in a suite with a balcony, a rare thing in an of itself in the city. It had nice views, and in the summer it would be amazing. (In the winter, it was a bit cold to just hang out on the balcony for a long time.) Everything was clean, new, working, no problem.
Service was excellent, from the valet who first met us at the door, to the people at reception, to room service. No complaints there. We did have to wait a few minutes for our room to be ready, but not enough time for me to finish checking out the bar’s excellent wine selection.
And all of this came at a reasonable price. For Manhattan, that is. Their base rate is OK, but they have excellent specials from time to time, like most hotels.
Overall, I highly recommend the Muse. It was a great place to stay.

New York City weekend, February 2010

Alli and I went down to New York City (NYC) last weekend. It was a long weekend, with Monday being Presidents Day, and Sunday was also Valentine’s Day.

I am a fan of the weekend getaway in general, as readers of this blog know. We’ve done assorted weekend trips to places like Paris, Amsterdam, and plenty of others. In fact, chances are if it’s a true long weekend, you will not find me at home 😉
Of course, NYC is much closer to Boston. A quick car ride away, and we’ve been there plenty of times in the past. We now, when we go, it’s usually to try out good restaurants, do some shopping, meet friends, and generally walk around to enjoy the city.
This time, we did the above, and also went out partying a little bit, and I experimented more with foursquare in its home town. I have to admit, I planned some stops on our trip explicitly with the purpose of checking in on foursquare and earning some badges. Now that’s a pretty powerful product…
I’ll post the hotel and restaurant reviews shortly, in separate posts. In case you’re wondering, we don’t have many pictures from this trip, because we thought we lost our camera. However, gladly, we just found it a couple of days ago in the pocket of a snowboarding jacket. So, yay, we still have the camera, but unfortunately no pics 😉

Israel trip, September 2009

I know, it’s been two months since September. I’m far behind in my blogging ;(

In September 2009, following our trip to China, I flew right to Israel. I could have come back to Boston for a few days, but I wanted to go straight to Israel for a couple of reasons, detailed below.
First, I’ve always wanted to fly around the world. Going from Boston to China (via Toronto) westward, and then needing to go to Israel, gave me a chance. And I’m glad to say, that mission is now accomplished, so I can check it off my “life to-do list.” For the record, my complete itinerary was Boston (BOS) -> Toronto (YYZ) -> Shanghai (PVG) -> Xi’an (XIY) -> Beijing (PEK) -> Vienna (VIE) -> Tel-Aviv (TLV) -> Paris (CDG) -> Boston (BOS).
Second, I had not celebrated my birthday with my family in Israel for a few years. It was time, and it was fun 😉 My birthday is September 5th, which was right after the end of our trip to China.
Third, I wanted to try working remotely for more than a day or two. Every now and then, I work from home (or a coffee shop) for a day or two, and I find it highly productive. But I wanted to get a better understanding / feeling for what it’s like to work remotely for a week or more. I’m glad I tried it, because now I know it’s very difficult. It requires a lot of patience, the ability to understand what people mean (not just what they say), and more. Not for me, if I can avoid it.
Of course, the main reason for this trip to Israel was not my birthday, nor my around-the-world trip. It was my little sister’s wedding. Noa and Doron got married in September, and Alli and I would not miss that for the world.
The wedding was a blast. A beautiful place, great couple, a chance to see many family and friends, and a big party of course. There are a bunch of pictures on Flickr and Facebook. In fact, one of the reasons I waited with this blog post is to give my sister a chance to post her wedding pictures online.
My birthday was also fun. My family likes to celebrate occasions and give gifts, something I myself enjoy a lot as well. Can’t complain there 😉
The third event that happened during this trip was the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashana. This is one of the two times a year I go to temple (the other being Yom Kippur, the day of atonement). Being in Israel, I got to go with my dad, my grandpa, and my uncle, which was awesome.
There was two other bonuses to being in Israel for more than a few days. One is that I had a chance to re-connect with old childhood friends, and I capitalized on it. I met at least 2-3 people I had not seen in many years, and that was awesome. Everyone is doing well, married, with kids coming soon.
The other bonus was that Alli‘s parents and brother, Shaun, were with us much of the time. Although Shaun got a little sick the first couple of days, it was great to spend a lot of time with them, and I’m happy they joined this significant family event.
All-in-all, it was a great trip. Even learning that working remotely is not for me, while not fun to learn, is a valuable lesson.

Restaurant review: Green T. House

Green T. House is a restaurant in Beijing. We went there near the end of our trip to China, but I have not gotten around to blogging about it. Until now, that is.

This restaurant is spectacular. It is probably the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever been to. We have a few pictures on Flickr, but they don’t do it justice, because of the lighting for the most part.
China 619
The restaurant is like a post-modern version of Alice in Wonderland. It was a visual and auditory heaven. I wish I could have the same decor here at home.
The theme, as you might have guessed, is tea. Many of the dishes involve tea, in various shapes and forms. Parts of the menu are given out as white-out on big tea leaves, which is cool. The food is delicious and service superb, as one might expect. The prices are very high: this is an expensive place, even by European standards.
However, it’s well worth it. We were there on a quiet night, with only a couple of other couples around. There was Asian-style belly-dancing entertainment in the middle of the meal, out of nowhere.
This was by far my favorite restaurant of the trip, and by definition, my favorite restaurant in Asia, to date 😉 If you’re ever in Beijing, you should go there.

China trip: overall thoughts / summary

Previous China trip posts: Shanghai, Hangzhou, Huangshan, Kunshan, Xi’an, Beijing.

This is just a summary post with some overall thoughts on our recent trip to China. The above posts have details about each area.
I really, greatly enjoyed this trip to China. It was a fascinating exposure to a small piece of a great culture. So much history, so many people, so much to learn. I would definitely like to go back and learn more.
I enjoyed the food. It’s not the same as Chinese food in America, and that’s OK. I like them both. The spices were bolder, more fat was used, more parts of more animals, and I like all of that. It’s probably not quite as healthy, but I’m not sure, and I don’t mind anyways.
The guides were all over the place. Alex in Shanghai and Bruce in Beijing were great: excellent English, friendly, flexible, just great guides. The guides in the smaller cities, especially Huangshan, but also Xi’an and Hangzhou, were not as good. Their English was bad, they had an agenda in terms of selling us stuff, and they were annoying. The city size to guide quality correlation is probably not a coincedence.
The locals were uniformly nice, friendly, and interested to chat. That was nice.
The hotels were also across a broad range. The Swissotel Kunshan was excellent, most of the others pretty good, and one or two just not that good. The western chains seemed like the most consistently good hotels.
Traffic was bad in the big cities, and OK in the smaller ones. Add a bunch of time to your plans in Beijing and Shanghai if you’re traveling by car.
The subway, where available, was very good. So were trains above ground. We had a good experience with both of those. Reasonable prices, too.
Shopping is good. There are plenty of good stores at all range of prices. Plan and expect to neogitiate, whether you’re Chinese (local) or not. It can be fun if you’re in the mood. The key is that you must be willing to walk away.
The country is huge. Duh, I know 😉 It just takes time to travel from city to city, region to region. This is expected, not a surprise, and not horrible.
Internal / domestic flights are packed. The planes we had were OK quality, nothing to write home about. But the took off and landed safely on time, we got our bags, and so I can’t complain much.
The sights were mostly as advertised. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Template of Heaven, those are amazing. Gotta see them. The terracotta warriors, West Lake, Shanghai skyline, not bad.
The group we went with was awesome. Every single person was cool, and it was a lot of fun. Much joking around.
A special note on Chinese t-shirts: those are funny! Many contain English expressions that are so broken, or so strange, that you can’t help but laugh out loud.
Overall, this was one of our best trips. It wasn’t particularly relaxing, but it was educational and enlightening. It’s highly recommended.

China trip: Beijing

Previous China trip posts: Shanghai, Hangzhou, Huangshan, Kunshan, Xi’an.

From Xi’an we flew to Beijing, China’s capital, and the last major stop on our trip. Beijing was actually my most anticipated city, and it did not disappoint at all.
It has all the grandeour of a capital, with huge roads, squares, monuments, buildings, and such. But it also felt much cleaner and better organized than Shanghai. I’m sure the 2008 Olympics, and the related construction work, helped a lot.
Beijing has a lot of traffic as well, on the various ring roads and between them. The infrastructure, the size of things like roads and parks, is very impressive.
We went to the Great Wall, of course, which was my favorite part of the whole trip. It’s every bit as big, grandiose, and impressive as you might imagine. Simply a can’t-miss visit. We hiked a bunch up and down the wall in the Badaling section, and it was also a beautiful weather day.
In general, the weather in Xi’an and Beijing was much better than the weather in Shanghai and its surrounding region. It was just as hot, or almost as hot, but with much less humidity. We also had a couple of days of clear blue skies, which was lovely.
We also went to the Forbidden City, of course, to see where the emperors lives. It’s big and impressive, too. Still, it felt somewhat bare, too large maybe. Also, a lot of the buildings were just not as impressive up close, when you looked inside. Maybe a lot of stuff has been removed from the insides.
The Temple of Heaven (Tian Tian) was another star Beijing attraction, and I really liked it. Beautiful, small compared to the Forbidden City, but exquisitely detailed, much more so than the Forbidden City.
Some people went to the Summer Palace, but I didn’t. I actually don’t remember what I was doing instead 😉
We walked over to Tiananmen Square, and around it to check out the various big buildings. Of all the buildings, the only one I went inside is Chairman Mao‘s mausoleum. That was fascinating. Tons of people, walking quietly in an orderly fashion, to pay their respects. It was the quietest out of all the places I’ve been in China, including our hotel rooms in the middle of the night.
On the way to the Great Wall, we visited the Ming Dynasty Tombs. Those were cool, and worth the detour I suppose, but only because they were along the way to the Great Wall anyways. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have rushed there.
One of the last things we did in Beijing was a hutong tour. Hutongs are the old, crowded, relatively run-down neighborhoods of Beijing. Some of them are preserved now, somewhat as tourist attractions, but definitely very lived-in. It was interesting, but felt touristy and not particularly different from poor neighborhoods in any other country. We visited a local family in the hutong for lunch, and they were very nice.
The tourist shopping places we were taken to, like the pearl market and the cloisonne factory, were a total waste of time. Over-priced, aggressive sales people, just not worth the trip. I’d encourage you to insist on skipping them, if you can. There is plenty of good shopping right on the street, in various shops and markets. Just skip the tourist destinations.
In Beijing we also saw a kung fu show. It was more artsy and less fighting than I wanted, but still interesting. Excellent music, impressive physiques. Warmly recommended.
We drove past the Olympic village and its structures. The Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube are both very impressive, and worth visiting.
Overall, I liked Beijing the most out of all the cities we visited. It’s a nice combination of big without being stifling, impressive but with rooms for privacy and quiet.
(Flickr photo by Chen YC.)

China trip: Xi’an

Previous China trip posts: Shanghai, Hangzhou, Huangshan, Kunshan.

From the wedding in Kunshan, we took a domestic flight to Xi’an. Xi’an is further north and west in China, compared to Kunshan and Shanghai. It is a previous capital of China, and served many dynasties as their capital.
The most famous things in the Xi’an area are the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, and the old city wall. We visited both of these sites on the same day, and both of them were cool.
The emperor’s tomb is famous because of the terracotta army that was built and buried around him. Even though most of it is not excavated and is thus just a bunch of huge dirt pits, the visible portions are indeed impressive. There are thousands of figures in real-life size.
The city wall is also pretty cool. Unfortunately during our visit it was a bit cloudy / foggy, so visibility was limited. But nonetheless, it was a nice attraction.
Overall, Xi’an was pretty nice too. The only exception was an incident as we arrived at the airport.
We got there on time, but our bus driver refused to drive us to the city, which is an hour away on the highway. We had the advertised number of people (14 I think), with one suitcase per person (Chinese domestic flight limitation anyways), so it’s unclear why he refused to drive. He never explained it, even after much arguing with our guide.
So we grabbed dinner and waited at the airport, while a new driver and bus were dispatched. Strange, annoying, but not a major deal.
From Xi’an, we took an early morning flight to the new capital, Beijing.

(Flickr photo by robbellers.)